The History of Lefthandedness

Throughout history, in virtually every civilization known to mankind, there has been some form of discrimination against left-handed people.  It has not always been intentional bias designed to harm lefthanders, and more often than not it was based on ignorance, rather than any concerted effort.  This has always been a right-hand dominated world, and left-handers have often been considered outcasts, defects, or some type of inferior human beings.  Some societies have tried to eliminate lefthanders, and few societies have ever really understood or embraced left-handed people.

While lefthanders today are better off than our ancestors ever were, more progress is still needed.  A history filling with myths and misconception has contributed to the negative attitudes that exist today.  Our enlightened society accepts, tolerates, and even jokes about left-handed people, but very little is really known about them and what makes them different from right-handed people.

There is little reliable evidence of human “handedness” in our past, and much of what we know is speculative and based on limited research.  Studies of characters depicted in art from the earliest times show that the majority of them were shown as being right-handers.  Tracing on cave walls most often showed the left hand as it was drawn by the right hand.  Skeletal remains of animals thousands of years old also show the majority of deadly blows to the head were likely to have been struck by a right hand.

It has been suggested that at one time there might have been more equal numbers of lefthanders and right-handers, and the right hand did not become the more dominant hand until the invention of tools and weapons.   It is hard to tell whether tools and weapons were designed for right-handers because they were more prevalent, or the right-hand design of the tools forced right-hand prevalence, but the right hand became the aggressor while left hand became the defensive hand.  The Romans conquered the world with legions that carried shields in their left hands and swords or spears in their right.  They were one of the most militantly right-handed societies.  They gave us the right-handed handshake and right-handed salute, and they also considered the left side to be evil and sinister. 

Biblical references about handedness are not specifically about left-handed people as much as they are about the left side versus the right side.  One very prominent and convincing passage is the New Testament’s Vision of Judgment, which implies that the right side is the good side and the left side is the evil side.  So many good things happen on the right side and so many bad things happen on the left side, that one might even conclude that the devil himself was the very first lefthander.  We never throw salt over our right shoulder, but we throw salt over our left shoulder to blind the devil that is waiting there.

Among the many other superstitions having to deal with the left side versus the right side is the belief that we must enter a home with the right foot first.  Those who could afford the luxury would designate one servant as the “footman” of the house.  His job was to ensure that no one entered with their left foot first, since that would bring evil down upon the inhabitants.  Another belief is that an itching right palm means that you will inherit money or good fortune, while an itching left palm means that you will lose money or give it away frivolously.  It is considered bad luck to pass wine with your left hand or to pass a drink counter-clockwise around the table.  In some cultures, the involuntary twitching of the left eyelid meant an impending death in the family.  Others believe that a tremor on the left side of the body during sleep means ill fortune or death. 

A highly significant and widely followed belief about lefthanders is the story of the unclean hand.  Long before modern plumbing was invented, lack of personal hygiene was a major threat to human health.  It was not always practical for people to keep their hands clean, particularly in the desert.  Food was served and shared from communal bowls rather than individual plates, and people eat with their hands instead of using utensils.  It was necessary to designate one hand as the food hand, to be kept as the clean hand, while the other hand became the dirty hand.  Using the wrong hand at the dinner table could ruin the meal for the entire family, and would quickly turn the offender into an outcast.

The designation of the left hand as the “dirty hand” has held its meaning for thousands of years.  The only accepted use of the left hand in some cultures is to wipe and cleans one’s own private parts.  Throughout much of Asia and Africa, even today, being left-handed is simply not tolerated.  In cases where verbal warnings have failed, left hands have been burned over fires or in scalding water, or have been beaten or broken to cure one of their vulgar, dangerous, and socially unacceptable habit.

One interesting story in left-handed history is that of the Kerr family of Scotland.  The Kerr family surname comes from “keir” which means left in Gaelic.  There were so many left-handed swordsmen in their family that one of their famous castles which was built in the late 1400’s was built with spiral staircases that spiraled in the opposite from usual direction, which gave them a fighting advantage over their confused enemies.  An article written in 1972 claimed that about 30% of those with the surname Kerr were left-handed as opposed to a background 10% of the population. However, another article written 20 years later claims to have found no statistically significant increase in left-handedness among people with the family name Kerr or Carr

The fact that 16th century artist and inventor Leonardo de Vinci had so much success with his left hand helped to improve the image of lefthanders.  Some have speculated that his famous style of “mirror writing” was an attempt to make it harder for people to sneak a peek at his notes and steal his ideas, while others claim that he was just trying to avoid smearing the ink when his hand dragged across it. Some historians have suggested that da Vinci's left-handedness added to his genius, because it forced him to think and see in an extraordinary way.  He is most often mentioned by lefthanders who try to create pride in their left-handedness and support their claims of left-handed genius and superiority.

In the 1600’s, an English author and doctor named Sir Thomas Browne, published some of the most elaborate research and writing about lefthanders up to that time.  Although he did not understand neurology the way scientists do today, he was the first to suggest that left-handedness was related to the cerebral dominance of the right side of the brain.  However, he also wrote extensively about his belief in angels and witchcraft, which makes some people question his credibility.

Another lefthander whose wisdom and accomplishments earned him a great deal of respect was American inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin in his time.  He once wrote an article called “A Petition of the Left Hand” bemoaning his left-handedness, and suggested that right-handers are favored at home and at school.  Just like Leonardo, Franklin is most often mentioned as one of history’s most accomplished lefthanders because of his genius and creativity.

In the late 1800’s, studies were conducted about lefthanders by Sir Daniel Wilson.   Among his contentions was that the right half of a lefthander’s brain would be heavier than the left, and that the left half of a right-hander’s brain would be heavier than the right.  He was able to prove his theories by weighing the brains of corpses.  Also in the late 1800’s, an Italian psychologist, Cesar Lombroso, claimed that lefthanders were psychological degenerates prone to crime and violence.  (Although lefthanders have shown higher than average tendencies toward criminal activity, this may be the result of the way society treats them and not just because they are left-handed).

The British Royal family has had its share of lefthanders.  Queen Victoria was forced to use her right hand because it was considered more proper.  King George VI was also forced to use his right hand, and stammered and stuttered so badly he could rarely make public speeches.  When he was allowed to play tennis left-handed, he won the Royal Air Force championship.  There have been many other lefthanders in the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II, current Prince Charles, who had to conform to playing polo right-handed, and Prince William.

While there has never been a period of time where lefthanders had the upper hand over right-handers, there have been isolated instances where a particular tribe of culture gave lefthanders more respect.  The Zuni tribe believed that left-handedness was a sign of good luck and that the left was the older and wiser hand.  The Incas held lefthanders in high esteem, and even referred to one of their great chiefs as “The Unforgettable Left-Handed One”.

The best news in the entire history of left-handed people is that the bias against them seems to be gradually decreasing as time goes by.  The most important events in the history of left-handed people are the events that have occurred in the latter half of the 20th century.  More research attempting to understand lefthanders, and more business efforts to help them, have been launched in this rather short period of time than in our entire history.  More left-handed people are remaining left-handed, and are enjoying their lives and accomplishing just as much as right-handed people.  The emphasis must turn toward the present and future, because we cannot change the past.  With any luck, the work that is being done today will make life even easier and more enjoyable for lefthanders in future generations.

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